As I dove happily into The Artist's Way this spring and summer, I felt myself learning more and more about how I work, how I resist my work, and how I've invented and cultivated so many obstacles for myself over the years.
It's been eye-opening. Definitely life-changing.
... Which is why I can't stop talking about it!! ;)
But I realized pretty quickly that the issues I uncovered in myself went further and deeper than I could fix with a few journal entries or a handful of imaginative tasks.
And much as I love positive affirmations, I wanted to find even better resources for putting Humpty Dumpty together again.
Well. Let me just say: I DID.
It happened when I was about three weeks into The Artist's Way. I was discovering, vividly, how deep and extensive and twisted the roots of my perfectionism and shame are.
"I've seen a couple of talks of hers. She does a lot of work with shame and vulnerability," my sister said.
"HOLD UP," I said, clutching the phone tighter. "I have shame! I didn't even realize that's what it was called, but I have so much shame! And I'm terrible at being vulnerable!"
"You need to read her books," my sister said. "Seriously."
A few days later, she texted me that she had, as she put it, gone down the Brené Brown rabbit hole on the Internet, and that everything she was learning and finding was incredible.
My sister told me, She deals with perfectionism!
And also with trust. With shame. With courage.
With how to put yourself and your work out there in the world, and not die because of it.
She had my attention.
I put a Post-It note on my computer screen: Go down the Brené Brown rabbit hole!
I did a little dabbling here and there, reading her blogs and listening to her TED talks. And then when I was sick with a cold for one extended weekend, I dove in the rest of the way.
I listened to talks and podcasts and interviews, one after the other. I took notes. I ordered her books.
You guys. This stuff is legit.
See, thanks to Julia Cameron and The Artist's Way, I had been realizing—for the first time—how grade school had totally transformed how I think of myself and my work.
The short version is: I was a naturally good student. I did well on tests, I understood the material quickly, and I made stellar grades.
I also learned very quickly and very early, that that's the exact way to paint a HUGE target on your own back in grade school.
It's bully fodder, plain and simple. Everyone loves to kick the smart kids. (Even some teachers.)
I learned that if I wanted to survive, I had to shut up, blend in, and become as inconspicuous as I possibly could.
I hid my talents; I hid my grades. I swallowed my academic excitement. And I internalized this message: "It is not okay to do well. If you must do well, don't let anyone know or find out."
I figured that out before I was eight. And I never tried to shake it off.
So even in college, as an English major and writing minor, as I was working on an honors thesis with a professor I deeply admired (and was therefore totally terrified of), I never once asked for a face-to-face meeting with him.
I'd sneak to his office and stick my latest thesis draft in his mailbox and creep away. I didn't talk much to my friends about my honors project either, because my whole past told me loud and clear, That's how you lose friends.
If you're doing well, don't let it be noticeable. Keep your voice down. Or everyone will hate you.
Fast forward to working on a trilogy of novels that I want to be amazing, to dreams about publishing ... and is it any wonder that I haven't kept going, that I haven't taken that leap, that I always stop short and pull my books apart and decide they aren't worth it?
... Yep, I know. This is a little heavier than my usual. But I just want to offer up my experience as a kind of case study, because I'm so shocked to see what I've been living with, even in my normal, non-traumatic, supported-by-family life.
This is the stuff that's been buried under my work for all these years, and I didn't even realize it.
It's been radiating poison up through the layers of my drafts and my learning: this constant message to shut up, blend in, don't be anything other than ordinary or you will lose everyone you care about.
... I love Julia Cameron and all, but dealing with this kind of thing takes bigger, more specific guns.
And Brené Brown brings the firepower.
Oh my friends. I don't even know what to say to you, I just want to get some coffee and climb through the screen and sit with you, and let's just watch all her videos and read her books out loud and encourage each other to live brave, bold, Wholehearted lives and then write our brains out with total courage.
Can we do that, please??
I don't have that particular super power, so I'm just going to sit here and tell you a smidge about why she's so amazing, and you'll just have to promise me that you'll drink some nurturing beverage and deeply consider all this good stuff, okay?
Like I said, I dove head-first into Brené Brown's work, because everything I found through The Artist's Way showed me how much of a mess I was.
I felt excited and a bit desperate: How would I work to heal my perfectionism, how would I learn to stop blending in and sacrificing originality, and how would I learn to have the courage to share my imperfect work?
I listened to her talks and learned about the power of vulnerability and the damaging effects of shame: core concepts in her research.
Yes, research: she's a professor and a qualitative researcher, so her talks and her books are based on data. A lot of data.
And I love that, because she's not just a nice lady saying, "this is a pretty way to live." She's a total data analysis geek, and she's saying, this is what the numbers say.
Even more powerfully than that, she's saying that what her research turned up convinced her to change her life. And because of that, she's sharing that information with us.
So it's real. It's true. It works.
And it's essential.
Where are you at these days, my friend?
Are you, like me, struggling against perfectionism, an ugly past, a lack of courage?
Are there some old scars tugging at you, pulling you back? Some toxic messages telling you to keep your voice down, your stories under wraps?
That stuff is brutal. And if we don't learn how to face it, and practice the ninja moves we need to twist out of its grip, then a lot of us are going to stay silent.
And honestly? I just don't think that's okay. I don't want any more writers and creatives and artists staying stuck in the evil quicksand of shame and perfectionism and lies.
So here are some of the amazing Brené Brown resources that I've started using. They are helping reshape the way I think about myself, the people around me, and the work I do.
Please please please, check them out:
1. The talks! (TED and others)
This is Brené Brown 101. In her massively popular talks, The Power of Vulnerability, and Listening to Shame, you'll learn some of her key concepts and start your journey into a shame-resilient practice.
(I know. I know. It's pretty amazing!)
And then, for our creative souls, here is an incredible talk that she gave at 99u. I love this one, because she's speaking specifically to people who 1) make stuff, and then 2) put it into the world. So this is essential wisdom for us lionhearted writers!
Finally, she and Elizabeth Gilbert have a lovely, empowering conversation about creativity and empathy on this podcast (season 1, episode 12), which, if you're like me, will absolutely shake up the way you think about your creativity.
(And it also might make you want to adopt Brené Brown as an aunt so that you can pop over at least once a week for coffee and a long conversation. Or maybe that's just me. But I think we could be friends.)
2. The books!
The Gifts of Imperfection: I raced through this book over one long weekend (it's a short one, a quick read).
She presents ten qualities that she found over and over to be essential for living a full, healthy, amazing life. She calls that kind of life Wholehearted.
She talks about courage and love and compassion and belonging and the idea of "being enough" in a way that was totally new and revelatory to me. (As well as VITAL in defeating those ugly voices that haunt me from childhood.)
And then she walks out those ten qualities she kept seeing (as well as their opposites).
She discusses: authenticity instead of approval; self-compassion instead of perfectionism; resilience instead of numbness; gratitude and joy instead of scarcity and dread; intuition instead of certainty; creativity instead of comparison; play and rest instead of productivity as self-worth; calm instead of anxiety; meaningful work instead of self-doubt; and laughter, song, and dance instead of being "always in control".
HOLY MOLY, my friends.
Everything she described resonates with me. The kind of person I want to be, and the kind of courageous writer I aspire to, would be defined by those positives.
Authenticity? Heck yes! Resilience and gratitude? Gorgeous.
Someone who practices self-compassion, creativity, and play? Who allows for intuition and cultivates calm? Geez. I'd love to just splash around in all those things!
But if I'm honest, I'm much more defined by seeking approval, overvaluing productivity, feeling dread and scarcity, numbing out, being anxious, and dying for certainty.
... Qualities that basically suffocate the life out of my writing and my heart.
This beautiful, kind, compassionate book is helping me change course, oh-so slowly.
It's the starting point for turning the ship, changing the messages I didn't realize I believed. It's helping me question the values that I assumed were vital and important and sure.
If you're struggling with perfectionism, or if you feel like your life is just smaller than you want it to be—I can't recommend The Gifts of Imperfection enough!
Daring Greatly: I'm midway through this book, and if you want to dive into the concepts of shame and courage more deeply, OH MY GOSH, this is your book.
It's amazing. That's all. Just straight up amazing and it's reshaping who I am with every little bit I read.
(Check out this brief glimpse into what inspired the book. And yep, that quote still brings tears to my eyes.)
I'm taking a bazillion notes as I read Daring Greatly, and I'm seeing myself much more clearly—this freaky little dance I do to keep myself from being vulnerable, real, open, courageous.
I'm so excited to get free of this, my friends.
Rising Strong: I haven't read this one yet, but I adore the premise. As Brené Brown says over and over: if courage is a value that we now have, we'll eventually fail.
We'll eventually put something out there that doesn't go over well, and we have to know how to get back up and go on. How to rise strong.
And that's the premise of this book. As someone who wants to write dozens and dozens of novels, I'm so freaking excited about it. (Check out the short Rising Strong manifesto here. It gives me chills!)
... I know this isn't exactly my usual post style, friends.
I don't have anything fancy or tidy to say about all of this, because I don't have answers in place. I'm in process, in the mucky messy early stages of pulling old beliefs apart and practicing the new ones.
I'm working hard to learn these things, because I'm deeply convinced of their worth. I'm catching little glimpses of freedom, moments where I'm choosing to be authentically myself, where I'm growing in my self-compassion.
I love those moments.
It feels like a totally new way to be myself. Like I'm finding a richer, truer version of me, stashed deep under all these layers and old lies—but I'm finding her, I'm pulling her up to the light, and I'm dedicated to practicing this new way of being.
Here's the thing: Who are you? Underneath old lies and toxic messages and historic scars? The poisons you swallowed a long time ago?
Who are you as a person, as an artist, as a voice, as a writer?
Do you know what's holding you back? Do you know how to move forward, how to heal, how to be your full and dazzling and Wholehearted self?
Because that's the journey I'm going on. And I would love some company.
These tools that Brené Brown shares in her books and her conversations and her talks—they're ESSENTIAL for doing all that we want to do.
For having the heart to write, the perspective to accept imperfection, the courage to publish, the resilience for dealing with critics, as well as the ability to get up again, when we write something that fails.
In other words, I am convinced, right down to my marrow, that the tools and thinking that Brené Brown provides are as vital to our writing lives as a concept of plot, character, setting, novel structure, and language.
Personally, if I don't learn this, nothing of mine will get out the door.
That's how huge this is.
There's no lionhearted, and there's no writing, and there's not even much of a life, without this stuff.
So. If you, like me, had been hearing Brené Brown's name around on the Internet, and didn't know what all the fuss was about, welp, now you know.
And if you, like me, have felt yourself trapped by things in your writing life that you didn't fully understand—your courage sapped and your perfectionism roaring, your voice hindered and your steps shaky...
This is how we get out of all that.
As we learn to be free, courageous, and authentic, won't our writing just shine that much more?
As we practice compassion and resilience, we'll learn to publish without that suffocating question of "what will everyone else say?!"
Oh my friends.
What will happen then?
When we learn to take our Wholehearted selves and our Wholehearted books into the arena, publish with courage, and stand up even in the face of critics and failure?
What happens next?
I don't know. I can only barely imagine it. But when I do, I get goosebumps and chills and I cry a little and also start grinning, all at once.
Because that's where I'm heading. I've decided.
And I hope you're coming along too.